Vahe Gregorian

MU’s bronze-medal wrestler J’den Cox represents his country well

Missouri wrestler J’den Cox bit into his bronze medal, per Olympic tradition for photographs, on Saturday at Carioca Arena 2 in Rio de Janeiro.
Missouri wrestler J’den Cox bit into his bronze medal, per Olympic tradition for photographs, on Saturday at Carioca Arena 2 in Rio de Janeiro. deulitt@kcstar.com

One second J’den Cox was cloaked in an American flag and engulfed in euphoria and running around the mat and roaring from the bottom of his soul.

In the next, the pride of the University of Missouri and Columbia Hickman High School scrambled toward his family and hoisted himself into the stands at Carioca Arena 2.

So many of all their tears and so much of his sweat flowed together that he figured the ground was flooded by the time he left.

Look at them all swarm each other and their faces beaming and contorting with just too much feeling.

And you’d never know the celebration wasn’t for an Olympic gold medal but a bronze won in the final seconds over the protest of Cuban Reineris Salas Perez, who was disqualified when he failed to finish the last six seconds of the match when a pivotal call correctly went against him.

Yet the luster wasn’t diminished but enhanced by what it had taken for Cox to get to this moment after a day that illuminated the true champion he is in every way.

As he gazed down on his medal and considered that now and forever he would be an Olympic medalist, he thought of it as, sure, a wonderful thing in itself.

But much more.

It was testament to representing his country with his utmost — including with the resolve to shrug off what might have been a crushing defeat earlier in the day.

It was testament to the real way of the world.

“I represented my country the way that life is,” he said. “Made mistakes, had to overcome and got to … maybe not where I wanted to end up, but I got to where I needed to go.”

It’s a lot easier to keep going when everything falls right, of course.

So the entire key to this day was Cox’s character and ability to live one of his credos when he needed it most: not to linger in failure.

That’s a great thing to say and believe, but maybe pretty hard to execute.

Especially after he narrowly lost the semifinal that would have sprung him to the gold-medal match … at least in part because he didn’t know he was losing due to a scoring nuance in a branch of the sport, freestyle, that he still is learning.

“I choose to enjoy what I do and realize I’m still alive, I’m still breathing and have joy in what I do and let it be the past,” he said. “ … Time-traveling is not invented. Until that day comes, I just have to learn how to accept” defeat.

Which in this case is to say … get over it within hours.

That was something Cox managed so seamlessly that it even “blew my mind,” said longtime coach Mike Eierman — a man who preaches that “you have to learn how to lose in order to win at wrestling,” yet found himself devastated by what had happened earlier.

At the pinnacle of competition he’d imagined for 16 years and aspired to in earnest for maybe 10, for a flickering few seconds Cox believed he’d beaten 2015 world silver medalist Selim Yasar of Turkey in their 190-pound bout to earn the right to compete for gold.

Then, kneeling on the mat he locked eyes with his brother, Drae, and read either his lips or vibe and understood, “You didn’t have criteria — you didn’t win.”

So, suddenly, Cox had lost after winning his first two matches.

It was in part by virtue of misunderstanding a technicality of scoring (a caution) that left him thinking he had the advantage when it was 1-1.

It also was in part because severe hearing loss in his left ear kept him from hearing coaches and family yelling that he was behind into the final 30 seconds, making his last desperate take-down attempt too late despite a U.S. challenge.

This was all on him, said Cox, who only heard “you’re losing” in the last few seconds.

It was a painful lesson.

But if you think a cruel setback would define his day when he still had a chance at bronze, well, you don’t know J’den Cox.

A few minutes later, with characteristic eloquence, he had moved on to the big picture: He didn’t have time to sulk.

A few minutes after that, he materialized in the second deck of the arena and called out below to his mother, Cathy, wondering if she had managed to bring in Cheez-Its.

Alas, she hadn’t because she didn’t think they’d make it through security.

“We’re so proud of you,” she yelled up to him. “Are you good?”

Seeing a hint of a reluctant grin, she said, “Yeah, I see the smile. …

“Be proud of yourself. Yeah, happens. But you know what, four more years, we’ll be in Japan (for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics). I’m going to Japan. You’re taking me to Japan!

“Alright, we’ll see you on the medal stand. Love you!”

After he indeed rallied to win the bronze medal, it seemed that the absence of Cheez-Its was his only real distress in between.

“It hurt,” he said, laughing. “That’s some salty goodness right there.”

But he adapted, first with crackers instead of his favored snack.

Then by prevailing in a match he led 1-0 into the final seconds when his corner appealed a call that resulted in a two-point takedown for Cox.

In the heat of the moment, Salas Perez refused to finish the match, a gesture that Cox didn’t begrudge him.

But Cox went out of his way to reach out and shake the hand of the departing Cuban coach.

And that was just one of the ways that on a day of lessons learned, Cox also taught.

Yes, as a pure competitor.

But even more so with reassuring and honorable perspective.

He reminded us, yet again, that you can be fierce and still grounded.

And that it needn’t be mutually exclusive to be a world-class athlete and balanced enough to be able to play five instruments and compose and sing your own music.

And to answer … “classes” when asked what’s next, when he gets back to Columbia this week and gets to return to normal life and reunite with his Mizzou wrestling brothers.

Minutes before the first session of the day, about 45 minutes before he was to begin competing, he wandered into the arena to survey the scene.

He beheld the entourage on hand to see him: friends and the 11 family members clad in T-shirts bearing Biblical scripture from Isaiah 41:10 and a silhouette of him (instead of an actual image out of concern the real thing could constitute an NCAA violation).

Then he did what nobody does before wrestling at this level, an emotionally primal competition in which most retreat within themselves.

He went over to his family and got and gave hugs and kisses.

“It was beautiful,” he said, adding that it was “warming” to talk to them and get “those final I-love-yous.”

It’s one thing to be this way with family, naturally, but quite another to be as thoughtful about adversaries.

But to watch Cox wrestle was to be struck just as much by his integrity as the agility and scrambling ability and quickness and resolve that nearly enabled him to reach the gold-medal match.

He stood tall in victory and defeat, it turns out, pivot-points that can bring out radically different reactions from less-admirable competitors.

So here was Cox offering defeated foes hands-up and pats on the back between periods and moving to vigorously hug Yasar.

All because he seems to see opponents more as brothers than enemies and insists deserve his blessings.

That’s why when asked why it matters to him to treat them that way, he said about one of the most moving things you’ll ever hear about the essence of all this.

“It matters to me because … this is a tough, grueling sport,” he said. “We all travel hundreds of thousands of miles to come to one venue (and) … get our faces ripped off by another human being.

“And for six minutes … excuse me for saying this, (of) going through hell and beyond of just pulling people and yanking people and pulling this and going through (that)… and losing weight and all this crud that’s going on and the crowd and the atmosphere. …

“It’s a beautiful, wonderful thing that’s out of pure chaos.

“So I want to show these guys … that I respect them from coming out on the mat, respect them for facing another human being and putting everything they have on the line. Every single time … They do that, and that’s amazing.”

It’s amazing, too, to see it that way in the midst of what might have been a debilitating loss that made bronze feel even more special than it was.

“I enjoyed embracing the hardship,” he said, “and I enjoyed every bit of this journey.”

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian

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